Written By: - Date published: 10:28 am, July 31st, 2010 - 14 comments
Categories: crime, law and "order", police, prisons, us politics - Tags: deborah coddington, economist, sensible sentencing trust, simon power
The Economist has a great article looking at the American propensity to deprive their citizens of their liberty for trivial offenses.
America is different from the rest of the world in lots of ways, many of them good. One of the bad ones is its willingness to lock up its citizens (see our briefing). One American adult in 100 festers behind bars (with the rate rising to one in nine for young black men). Its imprisoned population, at 2.3m, exceeds that of 15 of its states. No other rich country is nearly as punitive as the Land of the Free. The rate of incarceration is a fifth of America’s level in Britain, a ninth in Germany and a twelfth in Japan.
As they point out it is primarily a political problem
Some parts of America have long taken a tough, frontier attitude to justice. That tendency sharpened around four decades ago as rising crime became an emotive political issue and voters took to backing politicians who promised to stamp on it. This created a ratchet effect: lawmakers who wish to sound tough must propose laws tougher than the ones that the last chap who wanted to sound tough proposed. When the crime rate falls, tough sentences are hailed as the cause, even when demography or other factors may matter more; when the rate rises tough sentences are demanded to solve the problem. As a result, America’s incarceration rate has quadrupled since 1970.
The same thing has been happening at a lesser rate in other countries as well for the same reason. In NZ we’ve been seeing this counter-productive trend for some time. People are being locked up for longer for more and more trivial offenses. There appears to be little or no effect on the rate that crimes are committed. What does make a difference is funding the police so that they are able to do their job. This was quite evident in large increases in police numbers through the 00’s to the point that they were able to detect and deal with the minor offenses that lead on to further offenses.
Conservatives and liberals will always feud about the right level of punishment. Most Americans think that dangerous criminals, which statistically usually means young men, should go to prison for long periods of time, especially for violent offences. Even by that standard, the extreme toughness of American laws, especially the ever broader classes of ‘criminals’ affected by them, seems increasingly counterproductive.
Many states have mandatory minimum sentences, which remove judges’ discretion to show mercy, even when the circumstances of a case cry out for it. ‘Three strikes’ laws, which were at first used to put away persistently violent criminals for life, have in several states been applied to lesser offenders. The war on drugs has led to harsh sentences not just for dealing illegal drugs, but also for selling prescription drugs illegally. Peddling a handful can lead to a 15-year sentence.
This type of draconian punishment is just silly. After the arms race of promising to get ever tougher on crime, you can wind up going to jail for long periods for very trivial offenses. The only real result is that we wind up paying large amounts of our taxes to build and maintain prisons. Ultimately that money gets pulled away from the police and social programs that work to prevent crime. Quite simply increasing punishments doesn’t act as a deterrent, it is a waste of effort and resources.
It does not have to be this way. In the Netherlands, where the use of non-custodial sentences has grown, the prison population and the crime rate have both been falling (see article). Britain’s new government is proposing to replace jail for lesser offenders with community work. Some parts of America are bucking the national trend. New York cut its incarceration rate by 15% between 1997 and 2007, while reducing violent crime by 40%. This is welcome, but deeper reforms are required.
This is one of the few areas that I find myself in full agreement with Deborah Coddington. Her article last week “Victims’ clamour weighs heavily on scales of justice” was looking at the absurdities of the victimology
This is just that mad lot from Sensible Sentencing, who have the gall to try to call themselves a charity, having their hysterical influence on the National Government and its support party Act.
Who, for instance, does the ministry think it is kidding when it starts out by stating “a greater focus on victims will assist in reducing the cost and impact of crime on individuals and society in general”?
Then further on we find the ministry proposes to establish, among other initiatives, a “Victims of Crime Complaints Officer, and require criminal justice agencies to report to Parliament each year about their responsibilities to victims”.
This officer would tell Parliament how many complaints were received, which agency received the complaints, what they were, whether they were sorted out, and how, ad nauseum.
You can see where this new bureaucracy is going.
Set up a complaints department and the moaners will form a disorderly queue.
There is a lot more in that short article. The nett effect is likely to be more people being incarcerated for longer for no real reason and a grave distortion on the process of the justice system. Simon Power is idiotic for bowing to the minor political pressure and actively pushing this policy.
In this coming election in 2011, I’d suggest that voters actively vote for candidates and parties with policies that are more orientated to preventing crime than pandering to the idiotic slogans of pressure groups like the Sensible Sentencing Trust. In fact don’t vote for anyone who hasn’t issued a statement saying that they think the SST are fools and why. It would be nice to get rid of them out of the political spectrum.